Keeping your hands clean

Cyclescheme, 17.06.2012

Keeping your hands clean

Fixing your bike sometimes means oily hands. Here’s how to keep or get them clean, whether you’re at home or on the way to work.

Fixing your bike can be dirty work. Road grime and brake block residue washes off easily enough with soap and water. Oil is a different matter - especially if your chain care regime has lapsed and the oil has turned into a tenacious black paste. It’s awkward enough at home, where your spouse may take a dim view of you smearing oil around the kitchen sink. If you have to fix your chain on the way to work, it’s even worse: you’ll have hands like a mechanic’s when you arrive. Unless you’ve taken precautions…

Before you fix your bike

You don’t want to rummage in panniers or drawers with oily hands so put that kitchen roll, tissue or hand cleaner where you can get at it easily.

Similarly, you can’t roll up your sleeves once your hands are oily – or even push them back up if they’re slipping down past your elbows – so take the time to do it properly.

If you’re at home, overalls or an apron will keep stray oil off your clothes. If you’re at the roadside in your office clothes, temporarily donning waterproof over-trousers will do a similar job.

Hands-off bicycle maintenance

Disposable gloves are better (see below) but you can take ad hoc roadside measures to keep oil off your hands. If your chain has only derailed, it’s possible to put it back on using a stick or Biro. Simply hook the stick or pen under the lower run of chain and work anti-clockwise around the chainring. Once the top-most teeth are engaged, rotate the cranks clockwise. The chain should settle back in place.

If you must grasp the chain, leave your cycling gloves on until you’ve finished. Even mitts are better than nothing, although long-finger cycling gloves should keep your hands completely clean. Not all gloves provide sufficient dexterity, so you may have no choice but to remove them.

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Bicycle maintenance essentials: disposable gloves

Disposable gloves are useful at home and a godsend for roadside maintenance, enabling you to sidestep completely the issue of oil and dirt removal. Per pair, they’re very cheap and they take up next to no space in your bag.

Stretchy gloves than conform to your hand size are the easiest to work with and are the least likely to snag and tear. At the top end, Park Tool Nitrile Mechanic’s Gloves cost £30 for a box of 100 pairs ( They’re somewhat reusable so the cost per use will be less than 30p.

Disposable latex gloves range from £5-£15 per 100 pairs. Polythene gloves are cheapest at less than £5 per 100 pairs – or you can pick up a few pairs for free from petrol station forecourts. They’re not as tactile as latex or Nitrile gloves, but they’re much better than nothing.

Bicycle maintenance essentials: wet wipes

Wet wipes are something you might have with you anyway for commuting, as they enable you to freshen up a bit on arrival at work without resorting to a shower; they remove sweat from the obvious areas.

They’re also more effective than you might imagine at getting oil off your hands, particularly if they contain alcohol. They’ll clean the worst off and you can continue your ride without leaving oil on everything you touch.

Bicycle maintenance essentials: sugar and soap

This old standby is very useful if you get dirty hands and don’t have access to a proprietary hand cleaner.

  1. Pour a pile of sugar into one hand.

  2. Add enough washing-up liquid or liquid soap to turn this into a paste.

  3. Scrub your hands together under a cold tap.

The abrasive action of the sugar granules helps to get your hands much cleaner than soap alone. The sugar will dissolve so it won’t block drains, unlike sand.

You can find sugar and soap pretty much anywhere – certainly in the office kitchen. If you commute by bike and train, you can get a handful of sugar sachets for free from the buffet car or from one of the ubiquitous station coffee shops, before retiring to the loo to wash up.

Bicycle maintenance essentials: proprietary hand cleaners

Once upon a time, the only name you needed to know in hand-cleaners was Swarfega. It’s still made and it’s still effective, although the petroleum-derived solvents it employs can dry out the skin. Suprega, made by the same company, uses citrus oils instead so should be more skin friendly.

Alternatively, there are cleaners that work on the sugar-and-soap principle, combining tiny polymer or fine wood granules with a liquid or paste soap. Good options include:

  • Top Clean Hand Cleaner (£4.99 for 250ml,, which lasts longer than you’d think as you have to add water.

  • Fenwick’s Beaded Hand Cleaner (£5.99 for 500ml,, which can also be used as ‘assembly compound’ to stop seatposts slipping down into the frame.

  • Weldtite Dirtwash Hand Cleaner (£7.99 for 500ml,

If you do a lot of your own bike maintenance, it’s cheaper to buy in bulk. You can always decant a small amount of cleaner into a smaller container to carry on the bike or leave in your desk drawer at work.

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